The Quakers were a mere 15 minutes from pulling off a significant upset for the Ivy crown, but the crowd was silent and the mood somber. The student section wasn’t even throwing toast.
Senior quarterback Billy Ragone was down.
And he wasn’t getting up.
It happened on the final play of the third quarter. Penn, up 21-14 at the time, faced a crucial third down with three yards to go on the Harvard 36. Ragone, as he had already done 15 times that afternoon, tucked the football away and took off running. He scrambled seven yards — easily enough for the first — before he was brought down violently around the neck by the Crimson’s Nnamdi Obukwelu.
The play was deemed clean by the officials, but the result was far from it. Ragone’s left ankle, apparently caught in the Sprinturf of Franklin Field, was twisted and dislocated. It was ugly. As he lay on his back in obvious pain, his left leg remained straight but his foot was pointed abnormally to the left.
After the trainers worked on him for several minutes, he was carted off the field to significant cheers. It was clear his game — arguably one of the best of his career, in which he threw for 108 yards, ran for 95 more and had a hand in all three touchdowns — and his season, were both over.
At that point, the Quakers faced the task of finishing off the No. 25 team in the FCS without not only their first-team All-Ivy quarterback, but also without their commander in chief.
“A guy like Billy Ragone — who’s been our leader on the offensive side since day one, since the day he walked onto campus and put on a uniform — to see him go down like that, we weren’t going to let that slide,” senior captain Brandon Copeland said. “And it ended in great fashion.”
Though he wouldn’t call the hit to Ragone dirty, Copeland did say the injury “enraged” him and his teammates and ultimately propelled them to what was a 30-21 title-clinching victory.
“There was just a whole new energy on the sideline,” Copeland said. “We just embraced seeing what he had to go through, that type of pain on the field like that.”
Indeed, the Penn defense buckled down in the final frame. After allowing an eight-play, 64-yard touchdown drive in the early part of the quarter, the Red and Blue ‘D’ limited the Crimson to 15 net yards on their final three possessions, culminating in a safety to clinch the win.
But before that, it was backup quarterback Andrew Holland who stepped in and finished the 11-play, 87-yard march that Ragone had started. Holland completed just one pass on the day, but it was all that was needed — an 18-yard strike to tight end Mitchell King, who made a phenomenal catch in the back of the end zone to give Penn a 28-14 lead with just over 14 minutes remaining.
Holland, to the bewilderment of many a Penn supporter this season, had played and thrown a pass in each of the team’s first eight games. Going into Saturday, he had 79 pass attempts to Ragone’s 193.
Throughout the year, Penn coach Al Bagnoli made sure to give Holland a least one, if not several drives to run the offense each game. The results were often mixed. Indeed, Bagnoli employed this strategy again against Harvard in the first quarter, and it resulted in Penn’s first three-and-out of the afternoon.
But somehow, the strategy which many labeled as disruptive to the offense for breaking up its rhythm, in the end, paid off in a big way.
“This is a scenario when you don’t want your backup quarterback to come in and to never have a snap,” Bagnoli said. “Billy’s going to be a high-risk player just because we’re going to run him … It’s one of the reasons we continued to play Andrew.”
Holland will be under center for next week’s finale at Cornell, hoping to lead Penn to an outright Ivy League title. Ragone, if he makes the trip after his surgery this week, will be relegated to the sidelines.
And if the Quakers prevail, the victory will be no less sweet to him.
“It’s tough to get hurt like this, but I knew my teammates would pick me up,” Ragone said in an interview with NBC Sports following the game. “This is the best feeling in the world, winning this thing, and yeah, we did it as a team.”
A championship team, that is.